Article Hindi

Living on her own terms: Remembering the dazzling Parveen Babi

On her 15th death anniversary, we recall the unconventional life and career of Parveen Babi, who remained a rebel till the very end.

Sukhpreet Kahlon

If there was one actress who dazzled the Hindi movie audience with both her on-screen and off-screen persona, it was Parveen Babi.

The model-turned-actress shattered prevailing stereotypes in Hindi cinema through her groundbreaking roles, playing neither the virtuous, submissive woman nor the conniving, devious vamp, which were the two dominant choices for women at the time.

Instead, Parveen Babi usually played the Westernized, ‘liberated’, sexy woman, holding her own against her leading men.

Hailing from an aristocratic family of Junagarh, Gujarat, Parveen Babi was first noticed by filmmaker BR Ishara, who had given several newcomers a break in the industry. She made her movie debut in his film Charitra (1973) alongside the dashing cricketer Salim Durrani.

The film did not do well at the box office and Parveen Babi continued to act in a string of films that sank without a trace. Her big moment came with Gulshan Rai's Deewar (1975), the film that gave us the Angry Young Man in Hindi cinema and became the defining film of the decade.

With Deewar, writers Salim-Javed had carved out a different identity for the leading men and women in films in response to the reality of the times. Situated within this was the disruptive image of the heroine played by Parveen Babi, who, along with her contemporary Zeenat Aman, naturalized the Western look associated mostly with vamps till then.

While vamps were portrayed as women of dubious character and signified sexual excess, Parveen Babi's characters were Westernized, often smoked and drank alcohol on screen, but were still very much the heroines. She and Zeenat Aman broke the mould with the characters they portrayed on screen. The two stars even acted together in FC Mehra’s Ashanti (1982) and Mahaan (1983).

Parveen Babi enjoyed stupendous success with films like the iconic Amar Akbar Anthony (1977), in which she played the memorable role of Jenny, Amitabh Bachchan's love interest. Other films followed such as Suhaag (1979), Kaala Patthar (1979), Shaan (1980), Kaalia (1982) and Namak Halaal (1982), in many of which she was cast opposite the reigning superstar of Hindi cinema.

In 1976, Parveen Babi became the first Indian actress to be featured on the cover of the Asian edition of Time magazine. The issue was titled ‘Asia’s Frenetic Film Scene’ and the fact that Parveen Babi was chosen to represent the industry bears testimony to her stardom.

But Parveen Babi was shattering stereotypes off the screen as well, speaking frankly in the press about her relationships, even those with married men. Kabir Bedi, Danny Denzongpa and Mahesh Bhatt were some of her partners with the latter making Arth (1982), a semi-autobiographical look at their relationship.

There was huge media speculation around the film, which offers glimpses into the troubled state of mind of the actress, a state that would steadily deteriorate over time.

At the peak of her career, in 1983, Parveen Babi suddenly decided to leave the industry and moved to the US and joined guru UG Krishnamurti. This was most unusual and the press was rife with speculation about her move.

She was later diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia and returned to India, choosing to lead a reclusive life. She died, all alone, on 20 January 2005 in her apartment in Mumbai. The body was only discovered two days later.

Although her career in cinema was a short-lived one, Parveen Babi lit up the screen with her presence and is remembered for her joie de vivre. With her sparkling eyes and tall, lithe frame, it was impossible to take one’s eyes off her.